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Who are we? Image of Germany 2015

Illustration by Jasper Rietman

What’s with those Germans and their continual existential questioning of their identity? In an earlier post, I referenced the German Theologian, Prisoner, and WWII Martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who asked “Who Am I?” in a most poetic way before his execution.

I suspect crises, personal and communal, are laboratories for self-questioning; according to Jenny Erpenbeck, “The refugee crisis is forcing Germans to ask: who are we?

… criminality is on the rise in German towns that have accepted refugees. But it’s not the refugees who are responsible for this crime wave: Germans in these towns have been committing arson, damaging property and attacking refugees. In other words, Germans have been making their own worst fears come true. Often the fear of loss leads to the very loss we fear – a principle that holds true not only for jealous lovers but also, it seems, for those who turn to violence out of fear that the refugees will cost them their safety and peace…

Some Germans can imagine what it means to lose everything – hence their empathy; some can imagine what it means to lose everything – hence their fear…

And then there’s the ever-growing violence, both verbal and physical, from part of the German population: those who would like to see their country walled off with barbed wire – as is happening in Hungary – or, failing that, to at least have the Berlin government refuse to accept even the ridiculously low numbers of refugees mandated by the European Union – as Poland and the UK have done.

But which “European values” are best upheld with barbed wire and fences, regulations, harassment and attacks? Liberté, égalité, fraternité? Or is this mainly about our own survival? In eastern Germany, you can once again hear people chanting Wir sind das Volk (“We are the people”). In 1989 that sentence opened a border; now it’s being used to close a border, to insulate this finally unified Volk from the newcomers, who lack any unity since they are fleeing so many different wars. Are other countries’ wars our responsibility? That’s a question you hear a lot these days. But no one wants to hear the answer…

Love flies out the window

This tandem of human misery and insatiable need is the front line of practical application. Germany, like many others, have had to move from an idea of an ideal – to the reality of showing hospitality.  As the proverb (to the left) suggests, “has all love (or the theory of love) flown out the window in the face of costly need?”

The Equation of Human Value:

Erpenbeck reflects on her people, on their response to new people, and on what this says about who we are:

Sometimes I think about how the people in each of those boats are no different from the rest of us: men, women, and children, among them potential postal workers as well as potential Nobel laureates, plumbers and musicians, office and construction workers, teachers, cabinet-makers, scientists, assembly line workers, sales clerks.

Sometimes I am surprised at how little curiosity there is to meet these people and learn what they have experienced – what moves them, what their abilities, ideas and plans are – and how little interest we seem to take in sharing our world with them. If we find it acceptable to let people like this drown, suffocate or freeze to death, we are also accepting the loss of the infinite capacities that dwell in them just as much as in us. By failing to value them, we show disdain for ourselves as well

What a remarkable statement to make: “By failing to value them, we show disdain for ourselves as well.” This is the quantum mechanical equation of human value.

What more can I say than to agree most profoundly, and to ever point you to the enigma of your worth in Whose I am – as a clue to who I am.